Josh McNeil has started virtually every UT game at center the past three years, so most observers assumed he'd start every game in 2009. Sullins took Kiffin's vow to heart, however, and set about winning the first-team job at center. And, with three weeks left to the Vols' Sept. 5 opener, the 6-1, 260-pound senior still has a shot at accomplishing that goal.
"I just wanted to come out here and work as hard as I could," Sullins said this week. "I didn't want to take anything for granted, didn't want to leave anything on the field. I believed (what Kiffin said) but more than anything I wanted to come out and give my all. You don't ever want to slack off. In situations like this, sometimes when you get an opportunity it pays off."
If Sullins ever doubted Kiffin's sincerity, those doubts were erased as spring practice wound to its conclusion last April.
"Through spring they kept giving me first-team reps, and I started the Orange & White Game," Sullins recalled. "They kept throwing me in there with the first team and giving me shots. When they keep putting you in there you see they feel more comfortable with you, and that makes you believe in them more."
Vol coaches appear quite comfortable with Cody Sullins, who walked on at UT with his twin brother Cory in 2005 following solid careers at White House High in Cottontown. Each won Academic All-SEC honors in 2006, 2007 and 2008 but neither has won much playing time to date. That could change in 2009, especially for Cody, who admits that the prospect of significant game action "does add a little pep in the practice."
As much as Tennessee's coaches respect him, Tennessee's players may respect Cody Sullins even more. They know the obstacles he's had to overcome to achieve his current status.
"I like to think they have always had confidence in me," he said, qualifying a bit by noting that his teammates' opinion of him "has raised a little, I guess."
Getting practice reps with the first-team offense has helped raise his self-esteem a little, also.
"I guess it's kind of made me a little more confident in myself - being able to run against the first-team defense, do well and not make mistakes," he said.
Clearly, rising from unheralded walk-on to potential starter is quite an accomplishment. Even a humble guy like Sullins concedes as much.
"I guess when you look back on it, it kind of means more not having a lot of offers out of high school and not being highly recruited," he said, adding that the key for him was "just hard work and persistence.
"It's been fun. It's been a great journey, and I wouldn't change anything."